In simpler and more caveman-ish times, we would have called this piece “Sports Movie or Chick Flick?” That’s an easier premise than “Sports Movie or Rom-Com?” (doesn’t account for dramas), “Sports Movie, Rom-Com or Rom-Dram?” (the word Rom-Dram looks like a new erectile dysfunction drug), “Sports Movie, Rom-Com or High School Movie?” (still doesn’t account for dramas) and even “Sports Movie, Rom-Com, Rom-Dram or High School Movie?” (that title gave me a headache). So we’re audibling to something even more simple …
“Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?”
Now that’s easy! How do you know you’re watching a genuine sports movie? Answers to these four questions might help.
1. Could the movie have worked if you turned the sports theme into a non-sports theme, or would that have ruined the movie?
Here’s how I once broke down my love for School Ties …
“I love comparing Brendan Fraser to the other great movie quarterbacks. (I have him ranked behind Burt Reynolds but dead-even with Jamie Foxx.) I love the scene when Matt Damon finds out that Fraser’s character is Jewish (one of the better ‘Uh-oh, this isn’t gonna end well’ movie moments). I love when Damon turns into Evil Racist Preppy Damon, and I love wondering why the filmmakers decided to have Damon and Fraser fight naked in the shower. (It’s one of the strangest ideas in movie history. I’d put it against anything. They could have been shaving. They could have been brushing their teeth. Nope. Guys, take your clothes off and get wet — you’re gonna fight naked.) I love how the anti-Semitism angle kicks into 19th gear before Fraser’s classmates learn the valuable lesson, ‘Hey, he might be Jewish, but that doesn’t mean he’d cheat on a test.’) I love Fraser telling the dean, ‘You used me for football. I’ll use you to get into Harvard. Excuse me,’ and then the final Fraser-Damon exchange that ends the movie. It’s a cable classic.”
Notice how football wasn’t THAT important in that synopsis? School Ties was a high school movie about anti-Semitism that happened to include some football. Oh, and naked guys fighting in the shower. That, too. But Fraser’s character just needed to be better than Damon’s character at one thing, whether it was playing football, singing in the choir, trying out for the school musical or whatever. The sooner Fraser triggers Jealous Insecure Semi-Evil Jew-Hating Test-Cheating Matt Damon, the movie’s key character, the sooner we can learn lessons about life and stuff. That’s why School Ties isn’t a sports movie.
It’s been 25 years since the birth of the modern romantic comedy, so we’re celebrating them all week. Welcome to Rom-Com Week.
2. Does the movie have at least one “chills scene” in which you get goose bumps from something that’s specifically sports-related?
Some Hall of Fame examples: the final Roy Hobbs homer … Rocky getting up in Round 14 after Mickey tells him to stay down, then waving Apollo toward him as Apollo’s shoulders slump … Ollie’s two free throws … LaRusso’s crane technique to beat Lawrence … Louden Swain climbing the pegs to prove he can wrestle at 168 … or the Allies scoring their first goal against the Nazis. You could also throw in a variety of sports movie speeches like “I love you guys,” “For Granny, for Nate, for Caretaker,” “When [Apollo] died, a part of me died, too … ” and the last great moment of Pacino’s career (the “inches” speech). Hold on, those inches are all around us? Can you elaborate, Al?
Here’s when it gets confusing: when something like For Love of the Game vacillates between weighty rom-dram and sports movie for two hours, only it has a moment as fantastic as Mickey Hart jumping over the fence to save Billy Chapel’s perfect game. (“I LOVE YOU, MICKEY HART!”) Now what do we do?
(Then again, if For Love of the Game were really a sports movie, that Mickey Hart catch would be on YouTube. And it’s not. We’ll come back to this later.)
3. Could this movie appear on the Lifetime Network without making you say, “Wait, why the hell is this on the Lifetime Network?”
That’s the eternal dilemma with Bull Durham, a movie that sure seems comfortable being replayed on Lifetime between classics like Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and My Stepson, My Lover. What is it about Bull Durham that makes it a staple on Lifetime? Hmmmmmmm. We’ll come back to this later, too.24
4. Do you inadvertently watch it every time it’s on just because you’re waiting for a specific sports scene (or sequence)?
Say you’re flipping channels and stumble across Bud Kilmer convincing his doctors to shoot up Wendell’s knee before Lance Harbor and the Beek intervene. You’re going to do the math in your head, figure out that it’s about 11 minutes until Billy Bob’s last touchdown and the “We Can Be Heroes” song, and you’re staying for those 11 minutes, right? If you don’t have sports-specific rewatchability, you probably don’t have a sports movie.
Before we settle some “sports movie or not a sports movie?” questions, please note that we’re skipping over Blue Crush (surfing movie), Breaking Away (a cycling movie, and a pantheon sports movie at that), Bring It On (a high school movie that happens to be about cheerleaders) and Drumline (a high school movie centered on bands); we’re going yes, yes, no and no for those four. We’re also sticking to movies released in the past 35 years (with only three exceptions), avoiding all Rob Lowe movies (if you care, Youngblood was a sports movie and Oxford Blues was a rom-com), steering clear of any forgettable 21st-century either/or movies (sorry, Wimbledon) and saving the four toughest calls for the end of the column. Here we go.
All the Right Moves (1983)
Here’s a high school football movie that’s secretly disguised as a rom-dram — after about the 35-minute mark, football disappears and the central plot becomes “Tom Cruise wanted to use football to get a college scholarship and get out of his depressing Pennsylvania mill town, but his coach kicked him off the team and blackballed him with recruiters, so he’s gonna become a lifelong loser unless his girlfriend can save him from himself.” Sounds like a Lifetime Network staple, right?
But the football stuff carries the movie: Cruise as an undersize cornerback doing over-the-top Cruise things; Rifleman laying down Colin Kaepernick’s success blueprint 30 years early; Sean Penn’s brother wreaking havoc as a Luke Kuechly–type linebacker; a phenomenal (and extended) football game that peaks with a goal-line stand during a semi-monsoon; Coach Craig T. Nelson’s inexplicable decision not to have Ampipe High take a safety (leading to Salvucci’s game-ending fumble in the end zone); Nelson even more inexplicably berating Salvucci in the locker room afterward (“Come on, give it a good cry! YOU CHOKED! YOU QUIT!”); then Cruise defending Salvucci with a Cruisetastic “We didn’t quit! YOU QUIT!” tirade. Just that 15 minutes alone ensured that Moves was and is a sports movie. Turn it into a TV show already. High school football in the heart of blue-collar Pennsylvania steel country! Get Pete Berg on the phone! THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
American Anthem (1986)
1984 Olympian Mitch Gaylord plays a rebel gymnast who gives up competing until he meets another gymnast played by … wait for it … Janet Jones! She gets him competing again, they make the Olympic trials, then she gets banned from the Olympics for betting on both of them. Fine, I made that last part up. But it’s loaded with gymnastics and it’s definitely a sports movie. Did it work? Gaylord’s next three IMDb movie credits after 1986’s Anthem:
• American Tiger (1990)
• Animal Instincts (1992)
• Sexual Outlaws (1994)
That’s right, Mitch went from American Anthem to Skinemax in six years. At least we’ll always have one of the funniest trailers ever made. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
The Blind Side (2009)
In 2009, I called it a “quality spork flick” (the hybrid of a sports movie and a chick flick) and reported that my wife loved it, while “I came out of it thinking, ‘It nearly gave me diabetes, but I have to say, it wasn’t that bad.’ That’s a win-win date movie for Team Simmons.” But a few cable TV years revealed glaring sports movie warts like lousy football scenes, no chills scene and no here-comes-the-big-game payoff. Guess what? It doesn’t matter! As I wrote five years ago, the heart of the movie isn’t football, but scenes like this one …
Gigantic Homeless Kid [looking at his new bedroom]: “It’s nice. I never had one before.”
Sandra Bullock: “What, a room to yourself?”
Gigantic Homeless Kid: “A bed.”
[Cut to Sandy fighting off tears.]
Or this one …
Bullock’s friend [praising her]: “You’re changing that boy’s life.”
Bullock [dramatic pause]: “No. He’s changing mine.”
Simmons: “And he’s the best sex I’ve ever had.”
Sports Gal: “Shut up! Stop talking!”
It’s a Sandra Bullock Saves Somebody movie; it never wanted to be a sports movie. Since The Blind Side made nearly $256 million domestic, I’m gonna say they made the right choice. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
The Cutting Edge (1992)
Like everyone else in 1992, I specifically remember thinking that Edge turned D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly into stars. Whoops! D.B. played a former hockey player who gets paired up with a figure skater — against their wills, of course — for a potential Winter Olympics run. Good premise, great chemistry … lousy skating scenes. You know, lots of fast cuts, zooms, close-ups and every other 1992 trick to hide their skating doubles. If you weren’t sure it was a rom-com, the crucial tell happens right before their Olympic skate, when they’re fighting and then D.B. drops this doozy on Moira:
“Somewhere in the middle of all this, I fell in love with you. I’m saying I love you. I’m saying it out loud. You can’t say we’re not right for each other, because the way I see it, we might not be right for anyone else. It can’t be any harder to stay together than it was to stay apart. Kate, I need you. I need you.”
And then they go out and have the best skate of their lives. YOU HAD ME AT HELLO! We’ll be back on Lifetime after this. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
Fever Pitch (2005)
The biggest complaint from my unkind 2005 review:25 They billed this as a sports comedy when it was really a straightforward rom-com. In fact, they nailed the 10 generic themes that invariably show up in any rom-com. I self-plagiarized those themes here so you don’t have to click back and forth, and also, because it’s Rom-Com Week!
Theme No. 1: You can’t meet the man of your dreams in a bar or at a party. It only happens if he randomly shows up in your office, if he made some sort of bet about you, if he saved your life or if you happen to be impersonating someone else at the time.
Theme No. 2: If you’re approaching 30 and you’re still single, it’s only because you’re working too hard, not because there’s something wrong with you. Just make sure you find a potential husband as fast as possible, even if it means destroying someone else’s life or committing some kind of crime.
Theme No. 3: In your search for love, always target schoolteachers, bartenders, widowers, or anyone who was once successful before hitting a stretch of bad luck. This way, when they finally turn their lives around or come into some money, they’ll erroneously think that you were the reason.
Theme No. 4: If you’re dating someone who is passionate about something, he will absolutely give that up for you because all men change once they fall in love. Especially if you have a nice apartment.
Theme No. 5: You can have only three friends: a smart friend who’s pretty in a quirky way, a calculating beauty who’s morally corrupt and an overweight girl who doesn’t say much. You can only hang out with these people all at once. If there’s anyone in your life who doesn’t fit one of those three categories, get rid of them.
Theme No. 6: Your boyfriend’s friends only get in the way. The sooner you can destroy them, the better.
Theme No. 7: If you become pregnant, don’t worry — nobody actually has a baby in a Rom-Com unless it’s in the title. It’s just a temporary dilemma so you can break up for a month and he’ll realize that he can’t live without you — mainly because you pushed away his friends and ruined his life.
Theme No. 8: If you’re breaking up with the guy to prove a point, immediately find the best-looking guy in your office and invite him over to dinner, then hope the other guy shows up. When he shows up, he won’t do anything vengeful like get drunk and hook up with the nearest bimbo. He’ll simply stop shaving and showering until one of his friends goes over to his house to snap some sense into him.
Theme No. 9: When you finally get back together, make sure it happens in the goofiest place possible — whether it’s a baseball stadium, the top of a skyscraper, the launching of a space shuttle or wherever.
Theme No. 10: Either you will end up living happily ever after, or you will find a deep friendship with a gay man that will end up being just as satisfying.
I’m still confused that the Farrellys willingly opted to make a rom-com over a sports movie. They were gift-wrapped the perfect sports book (Nick Hornby’s classic) and the perfect storm of events (as they were filming the movie, the 2004 Red Sox turned into THE 2004 RED SOX). They were even from Rhode Island and still screwed it up. That’s like Spike Lee screwing up a Brooklyn movie! Whoops, bad example. So can’t we get a do-over with soccer gaining steam here? What about a traumatized Seattle fan hitting rock bottom after the Sonics get hijacked in 2008, disowning the NBA entirely, becoming an MLS fan, then throwing himself into the Sounders even as he’s falling for a girl from Portland who happens to be a huge Timbers fan? (Thinking.) You’re right, I’ll keep brainstorming. We need a better Fever Pitch movie. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
Hard Ball (2001)
Take Dangerous Minds, cross it with Bad News Bears, sprinkle in a dash of The Wire, throw in some Biggie Smalls music and bring in full-tilt Keanu Reeves for good measure. I mean, is there any doubt there’s a 2001 Hardball review in my ESPN archives that’s way, way, way, way too long? Hardball is to Keanu what Trapped in the Closet was to R. Kelly — he’s never been more Keanuish, Keanooey or Keanodacious, ever, not ever. They halfheartedly included a romantic subplot with a tired-looking, I’m-glad-they-never-asked-me-to-get-naked-in-this Diane Lane going through the motions of liking Keanu, but it’s definitely a baseball movie and I definitely watch anytime it’s on.
And now that we’ve settled that …
I will never forgive them for killing G-Baby. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
You know when an actor becomes super-duper famous and eventually talks himself into a flawed script, a needless sequel or a remake of a movie that shouldn’t be remade? He knows he probably shouldn’t do it, but his ego takes over and he just can’t help himself … and he’s so freaking famous and bankable that Hollywood can’t resist bankrolling the movie for him? That’s a Fuck It, I’m Famous movie. Cruise in Far and Away, Leo in The Beach, Stallone in Rhinestone, Will Smith releasing back-to-back sequels for Men in Black and Bad Boys … those were all Fuck It, I’m Famous movies. I bring this up because, in the late 1970s, this exchange almost definitely happened:
Warren Beatty: “I want to remake Heaven Can Wait and pretend to play QB for the Rams in it. Buy the rights, find me a writer and let’s make it.”
Studio Exec: “I don’t mind remaking that movie, it’s a classic — but you’re gonna play for the Rams in it? Are you sure?”
Warren Beatty: “Fuck it, I’m famous.”
The crucial point: You didn’t HAVE to put football in this movie. It’s a rich-guy movie, an afterlife movie, a Julie Christie Was Scorching Hot movie and (most important) a Warren Beatty Was A Huge Freaking Star movie. I like all of those things. Doesn’t make it a sports movie. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
Ice Castles (1978)
We’re still trapped in the late 1970s. Let’s play a game I like to call “Guess The Premise!”
Premise no. 1: A figure skater grows up in England as the heir to the king’s throne. The royal family wants her to give up skating to concentrate on her future royal duties, only she keeps going (with help from her supportive boyfriend, Robby Benson). Eventually, she renounces the royal family and represents England at the 1980 Olympics, where she ends up dumping Robby, getting knocked up by a German bobsledder and becoming a national outcast. The end.
Premise no. 2: A potential champion figure skater hits her head, goes blind, then makes a comeback without telling anyone she can’t see (with help from her supportive boyfriend, Robby Benson). She crushes her first competition and gets a standing ovation, only when everyone throws flowers on the ice, she can’t see them, skates over them, keeps tripping and sags to the ice as everyone realizes she’s blind. That’s when Robby runs out and helps her skate off to another standing ovation. The end.
So … guess the premise! Which one was it? If you guessed “no. 1,” you’re wrong. Here, look.
Regardless, any movie that leaned that heavily on Melissa Manchester’s “Through the Eyes of Love” can’t be a sports movie. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)
The suffocating sexual tension between Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi almost turned this into a rom-dram. Almost. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE … BARELY
Love & Basketball (2000)
A well-written, well-directed, impeccably structured movie that nailed the basketball scenes, caught Sanaa Lathan at her sneaky-hot apex, found a good-looking male lead (Omar Epps)26 to distract my future wife from noticing how much I loved Sanaa Lathan, and even had the characters aging in multiyear increments (a gimmick that always sucks me in). In other words, it’s the perfect date movie. Everything hinges on Lathan, who couldn’t get nominated despite carrying just about every scene. Do you know how hard that part was? She even saves the corny final basketball game — Lathan playing Epps for his heart, with Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Fool of Me” as the background music — because Sanaa Lathan is a goddess and she makes everything work. Double or nothin’.
Does it mean anything that “Love” comes before “Basketball” in the title? Not really — it’s a love story about two people who were bonded over the years by basketball, and Epps even tells Lathan, “All’s fair in love and basketball,” at one point. But the movie hits every rom-com/rom-dram convention (even if it’s subtle about it) — after all, our hero falls for the perfect mate, blows it, hits rock bottom, then true love saves him in the end.
Here’s the catch: You couldn’t replace basketball with anything else and have it work. It IS a basketball movie, just carefully cloaked as a rom-dram. Throw in the fact that the ending is one of the five greatest moments in WNBA history and … well … THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
Wikipedia describes Lucas as an “American teen tragicomedy.” Isn’t everyone’s high school experience a tragicomedy? That’s why high school movie DNA almost always overpowers rom-com DNA: Look at all the John Hughes movies, Clueless, Can’t Buy Me Love, Mean Girls, Secret Admirer, 10 Things I Hate About You and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When it’s a sports movie set in high school, the sports DNA has a better chance of standing out — just ask Hoosiers, The Karate Kid, Remember the Titans and Varsity Blues.
And then there’s Lucas — a high school nerd/bullying movie that features a fairly loaded-at-the-time cast (Charlie Sheen, Corey Haim, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Jeremy Piven and Winona Ryder). Haim played Lucas, a super-nerd who tries to play football to impress a girl — that leads to Lucas getting seriously injured during a game, then recovering in time to earn a varsity letterman’s jacket and a Defcon 2 slow-clap ending. I don’t know if Lucas was the Jackie Robinson of slow-clap movies, but it was definitely Larry Doby or Don Newcombe. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
Coming on DVD and Blu-ray on October 7, and coming to airplanes and hotels sooner than that! (Sorry, I had to.)27 I better stop before Robert Lipsyte sends me an email with the subject heading, “NEED TO TALK.” THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
One on One (1977)
The 2012 NBA lockout didn’t have a lot of upside, but one unintended benefit was a whole new generation being treated to NBA TV’s frequent replays of One on One, starring Robby Benson as a heat check freshman hoopster named Henry Steele. Here’s the TV ad; I think it came out in 1895.
For whatever reason, Robby decides to play Henry as if he’s been brain-damaged in a bad car accident that we never saw, but it still works — especially the basketball scenes, the chills scene comeback game and this unexpectedly classic ending.
He’s like an edgier J.J. Barea, only if somebody struck Barea in the head with a two-by-four. So why isn’t this a flat-out hoops movie? Because they waste a significant chunk of time with Robby falling for his redheaded tutor, and also because “Love Conquers All” by Seals & Crofts is the song for the closing credits. Whatever. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
The Replacements (2000)
Here’s my 2002 review. The movie’s football DNA fought off the rom-com DNA, even if it gets hairy a couple of times. And the Tao of Keanu endures: “Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.” THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
Rocky II (1979)
In my 2001 piece about the four Rocky movies (yes, I ignored the fifth one), I mentioned how slow Rocky II was … and that was right as we were becoming the Short Attention Span Generation and a full decade before we transformed into the No Attention Span Generation. If you ever want to make your life slow down, just keep watching the first 90 minutes of Rocky II over and over again. That section isn’t a sports movie, just a series of deleted scenes that AMC should banish from our lives forever. I always thought Adrian’s coma was symbolic of how the audience felt. And if this scene didn’t happen …
And this didn’t happen …
And the fight scene wasn’t an astonishing TWELVE MINUTES AND FIFTEEN SECONDS LONG (not counting the celebration) …
… then you could make a case that this was something other than a sports movie. But they happened. By the way, I’m fine with AMC chopping this down into a 30-minute movie for all subsequent Rocky marathons. Draw up the papers. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
Summer Catch (2001)
I once spent over 2,700 words reviewing Summer Catch. Not a humblebrag. Repeat: NOT a humblebrag. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
Teen Wolf (1985)
Um … what category did we decide on for high school basketball rom-com werewolf movies? I can’t remember. (Thinking.) Oh yeah — if your main character becomes the BMOC in high school, loses his sense of self and has his relationships affected in the process, you just made a high school movie and everything else is cream cheese. Long live Coach Finstock. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
Varsity Blues (1999)
Vision Quest (1985)
Two sports movies posing as high school movies. Blues never wanted to be anything other than an unapologetically raunchy, comically unrealistic, undeniably entertaining movie about Texas high school football. It’s like Friday Night Lights after four beers and a shot of tequila.28 It also inadvertently foreshadowed the NFL’s concussion crisis (yup, Billy Bob’s story line), created the phrase “whipped cream body sundae” and taught us that stripping can bring a teacher CLOSER to her students. It’s the footballiest of football movies. And in case you were wondering, the Beek still don’t want … your life.
Meanwhile, the surprisingly undated Vision Quest stars Matthew Modine as Louden Swain, who wants to accomplish one great thing during his senior year. That great thing? Dropping two weight classes to wrestle this guy …
That’s Brian Shute, an unbeatable champ at 168 from another school. So that becomes Louden’s “vision quest.” There’s a romance subplot with Linda Fiorentino that never overshadows the sports movie structure, along with multiple training scenes, multiple chills scenes, one inspiring speech, good ’80s music and a traditional “big game” ending. And Elmo’s speech was off the charts — one of my favorites in any sports movie.
It ain’t the six minutes … it’s what happens in that six minutes.
So good. Let’s watch Louden climb the pegs again. Where’s John Waite? John Waite — get in here!
THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE, SPORTS MOVIE
White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
It’s a rom-com that pretends to be a basketball movie, only they blew two of the three casting decisions: Rosie Perez was insufferable and Wesley Snipes couldn’t play hoops to save his life. I wrote this in 2008: “every hoops scene [with Snipes] physically pained me; really, nobody could stop this 5-foot-6 guy who dribbles over his ear, shoots line-drive jumpers and does the same crossover move every time? He’s so bad that every time it’s showing on Encore or TNT, I keep waiting for Mike Dunleavy to sign him during the closing credits.” A dated Dunleavy drive-by joke! Let’s do this! On cable, Snipes’s basketball game gets 2.4 percent worse every year.
The good news: Woody Harrelson’s pickup chops remain waaaaaaaaaay up there (very Marco Belinelli–ish) and there are just enough quality hoop scenes in here to save us from Rom-comville. It’s definitely a BASKETBALL movie … it’s just saddled with Snipes’s high dribble and a few too many excruciating Perez moments. If only Denzel had taken that Snipes part. If only. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
Without further ado, let’s tackle the four toughest calls of the column.
Tin Cup (1996)
It’s definitely a golf movie because Costner crushes the golf scenes and the general vibe of being a golfer, as does Don Johnson (a fun foil/villain), and the climactic tournament feels like it happened live on CBS (and may have). Everything about Tin Cup screams GOLF. You can’t remove golf and replace it with anything else.
On the other hand, it’s definitely a rom-com — the heart of the movie is Roy McAvoy’s relationship with Rene Russo’s sports psychologist, and how she affects his golf game (for the better). And the climax requires an unrealistic leap of faith: You have to buy that Roy McAvoy, needing only a par to win the U.S. Open, keeps stubbornly trying to reach the par-5 on 18 in two and splashes himself out of the top 10. When I saw it in the theater, that wrinkle infuriated me. Even Greg Norman wouldn’t have done that! Who wouldn’t just go for the par???? Upon repeated rewatchings, it’s not nearly as senseless as it felt that first time. It’s certainly more memorable than a typical woo-hoo-he-did-it! ending. And yeah — it’s a total chills scene.
Also, I loved Russo’s closing line after Roy sinks that final shot: “No one’s going to remember the Open 10 years from now, who won, who lost … but they’ll remember your 12! My God, Roy, it was … well, it’s immortal!”
That’s a fun concept for a sports movie, and for sports in general: In a 2009 mailbag, I started the Roy McAvoy Hall of Fame for “Meaningless Sporting Events That Somehow Managed to Become Immortal” and inducted this inaugural class: the Bulls-Celtics 2009 playoff series, the Ward-Gatti Trilogy, the 1976 ABA Dunk Contest, Lyle-Foreman I, Connors-Krickstein at the ’91 U.S. Open, the UConn-Syracuse six-OT game, Willis Reed fighting the entire 1966-67 Lakers team (and winning), the Drago-Balboa fight in Russia, the final day of the 1977-78 NBA scoring race (Thompson with 73, Gervin with 63), Bo Jackson bowling over Brian Bosworth, the second Piper’s Pit with Jimmy Snuka and, of course, McAvoy’s 12. Only a sports movie gets you thinking about stuff like that … right? THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE
For Love of the Game (1999)
Costner again. This time, he made a nuanced baseball movie that’s trapped under the boulder of a gigantic rom-com shaped like Kelly Preston’s head. Boy, there are some splendid baseball pieces in here: Yankee Stadium, Vin Scully’s play-by-play, Detroit’s increasingly excited bench chatter, Billy’s relationship with his old slugging teammate who jumped to the Yanks, the signed-baseball retirement scene (a personal favorite), John C. Reilly’s “We don’t stink right now” speech, the aforementioned Mickey Hart catch, Costner belatedly realizing that nobody on the Yanks has gotten on base yet, or even the 27th out itself. That’s some of the best baseball movie stuff ever filmed … and it’s wasted because Preston murders every scene she’s in.
I don’t know if it’s the character, the actress, the writing or all three, but man … she’s like a one-woman movie momentum tsunami. For years, I’ve been pushing for a director’s cut release that chops 90 percent of the Preston scenes — just enough so it doesn’t derail the film — and concentrates solely on Billy Chapel’s perfect-game quest. That was Costner’s last great sports movie role. I love Billy Chapel. We blew it. Dammit. I want to send Costner a signed baseball that says,
Make another f’n cut, please. Just do it. Get Mrs. Travolta out. Tell them I’m done watching her. She sucks. For love of the sports movie genre …
THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE (THERE’S STILL TIME!)
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Cameron Crowe’s classic features iconic performances by Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. (as Rod Tidwell, the best-written and best-executed athlete character in sports movie history), as well as a good-natured skewering of sports agents and agencies in general. All the supplemental sports industry characters work splendidly — Cush the idiot QB, Cush’s conniving family, the hatefully smarmy Bob Sugar, Jerry’s ambitious fiancée (Preston in a much more tolerable role), Arizona’s GM (Glenn Frey!), Rod’s jealous brother and crazy wife, Roy Firestone’s cameo, you name it.29
But it’s also an exceptional rom-com, because Dorothy Boyd (played by Renée Zellweger) ranks way up there on the “Most Likable Rom-Com Characters” list. It’s Cruise’s movie, and you’re supposed to like Cruise … and yet you’re rooting for Dorothy the entire time. I never totally cared if it worked out for Jerry, but Dorothy and J-Lip? That’s who I cared about. So even if scenes like “You had me at hello” and “You complete me” make no sense in a sports movie, if you’re treating it like it’s a Jerry-needs-to-come-through-for-Dorothy movie, they make sense.
So is it a sports movie? No, and here’s why — he could have been a movie agent and IT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE EXACT SAME MOVIE.
Think about it. Cruise’s sports agency could have been CAA. Rod Tidwell could have been an up-and-coming actor or rapper looking for a big break. Cush could have been a young Leo type, the no-doubt-about-it A-lister pretending that he’s not milking the system even though he is. And so on and so on. Writer-director Cameron Crowe crushed the sports stuff, only the heart of the movie had nothing to do about sports. It’s about love and relationships. Rod making Jerry scream “Show me the money!” into the telephone isn’t any different from Dorothy telling Jerry that he had her at hello. They’re both trying to connect with him, and they both want to keep believing in him. He’s some fucked-up guy who, for whatever reason, they can’t stop trusting. And that’s the movie.
You could make a really good case that it’s the best rom-com ever made. So what if Rod Tidwell is the best-written athlete character in Hollywood history? It’s still a rom-com. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE
Maybe we should name that blurry line between sports movies and rom-coms “The Costner Line.” Nobody has straddled the date movie world better, if only because the charismatic Costner seemed like a good guy. Women loved him. Men wanted to hang out with him. What else do you need? Nobody ever bought him as a serial killer, or a hit man, or a warrior in a postapocalyptic world. We wanted Costner hanging on with a minor league team, trying to make the PGA Tour, protecting Whitney Houston, battling a brain aneurysm as he tried to finish a grueling bike race, or driving to Boston on a whim to find Moonlight Graham. We wanted Costner giving speeches like this one.
Yup, he just crushed a speech that started out, “I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back.” You didn’t even notice how dreadful that was because Costner is so terrific as Crash. Really, really good. Likable, charming, acts like a catcher, swings like a slugger, nails every nuance you’d want from that part. In fact, he’s so good that he hides the movie’s most glaring flaw: Tim Robbins as Nuke LaLoosh, the team’s can’t-miss fireballing prospect who latches on to Crash as a mentor, even as they’re competing for the same woman (Susan Sarandon’s Annie, who’s been around the block and then some). That’s all fine and dandy except … well … Tim Robbins can’t throw a baseball.
Like, he can’t throw a baseball.
As in, he looks ridiculous every time he throws a baseball.
Supposedly Robbins threw out his arm in the first week of filming; unless he needed Tommy John surgery and gamely fought through it for two months, I don’t see how this is an excuse. You either know how to throw a baseball or you don’t. For two solid hours, I’m supposed to believe that this kid is headed to The Show because he can throw over 100 miles an hour, and meanwhile, he looks like he’s pitching with a torn rotator cuff. What???? Twenty-six years later, I still don’t understand how we just glossed over this problem. Here’s one of Bull Durham’s best scenes — Robbins throws a pitch at the 1:00 mark.
If you’re still buying Tim Robbins as Nuke LaLoosh in 2014, then you probably thought Costner’s dad in Field of Dreams had a cannon arm. Sure, this is an inventive movie that nailed so many minor league baseball nuances (the lingo, the rhythm, the fans, etc.) and wasn’t afraid to be candid and raunchy (a riskier move in 1988). But why does it really work? Because it caught Peak Costner and Peak Sarandon, two A-list stars at the top of their games. They’re great in the movie and they’re great together. You somehow never hold it against Sarandon that she’s a tramp who sleeps with one new player every season, or that she’s juggling Robbins and Costner and doing everything short of having a threesome with them. And you don’t mind that the last quarter of the movie degenerates into a flat-out love story worthy of the 10,275 times Lifetime has aired this thing.
Really, it’s more of a rom-com than a baseball movie — just like Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Wedding Planner and My Best Friend’s Wedding were more rom-coms than wedding movies (even if weddings were absolutely essential to all three movies). It’s the toughest call of the column … but when you don’t care that your star pitcher has a noodle arm, maybe you wanted to be a rom-com all along. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE.